A language for learning and teaching

How significant is the language you use when you are teaching? 

What messages does language itself convey to those who are learning?  How does our students’ language change depending on the context – the classroom, home, the peer group? Is the same true for you? How aware are you of the language you use? What messages may your choice of language convey to your students?  In the light of key theories examine how those theoretical positions have a practical  influence in the teaching and learning context you work in.

Language use is incredibly significant. What you don’t say can be as relevant as what you do say. The tone of delivery, facial expression, and the dominance of one language over another, or instead of, multilingual contexts are all possibly problematic. The variety of experiences that inform the listeners/students can never be adequately addressed by a one size fits all approach. Any disregard for the significance of language potentially robs people of opportunities to learn, heal, and participate. Personally, I don’t believe in “dumbing down” my speech when talking to younger people; this isn’t to say I don’t use appropriate language and subject matter. I practice having a fundamental sense of respect for the person/people with whom I am speaking/teaching and I genuinely want to know their interest, their level of comprehension, and what they are seeking. In between helping readers find resources and books and working with social justice campaigns, there is always something involving language use and careful listening.

In my experience, building trust early by really letting a student know that they are safe and within perfect rights to ask for clarification, to say they don’t understand, to seek out what is right for them is a means to accomplish other learning goals. Too often, it seems,  the desire to please an adult overrides the desire to be heard and be honest and I find that is a terrible form of socialization. It fosters/enforces taboos, chills exploration and discovery, and perpetuates stereotypes that serve no one.

Events that taught and shaped me

I grew up in Mexico and in South Africa under apartheid but my parents are from the US South; these environs are  racially charged and navigating the dialogues of racism and class has dominated a lot of my own social and educational landscape. In my final year of high-school, I lost friends from other schools. These friends were detained and never came back to their school. My own white, girls school lost no-one. It was also the year the COSATU riots happened in the Western Cape (http://www.sahistory.org.za/partial-state-emergency-july-1985) and the first time I was involved in a political march. These events impacted me so much that I have spent most of my life learning how to increase social justice dialogue (http://linguisticanthropology.org/socialjustice/), how to practice inclusivity, how to recognize privilege as a communication barrier, how to speak truth to power, and how to organize by listening first. My desire is to become better and more practiced in these areas and to continue my growth as an education activist.

I confront my vocabulary every day!  As a younger person, my experience in a colonial British school system made me stand out and away from peers in the US context for numerous reasons but, largely, because my vocabulary was extensive in comparison. The number of books that I had had to read for class was both more diverse and larger than the same peers.  I was constantly harassed for using “big words” that I had no idea were “big.”  After a few years of getting used to the culture and developing an understanding of real-world class dynamics, I learned how to alter my vocabulary for at least two audiences: professors (larger vocabulary and greater volume of understood literary references) and peers. I also learned, by that time, to create a comparison between my experiences of South African racism and US American racism and their respective histories.  I learned the coded ways that people speak about race and class, I have studied institutional frameworks and media behaviors  that augment many varieties of social division (sex, gender, orientation, weight, disability, race, class etc). I am always struck by the early age at which these messages impact a person and the language issues involved.

I believe, like many others, that addressing the problems of economic disenfranchisement, gender and race oppression and violence must be done through our education systems as well as through activist channels, legislation, and policy. I view the work done by Dr. Clark (of the famous “doll test”  http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-the-doll-test) as some of the most inspirational and radical educational efforts to be made – as well as being proof (at least in the US Context) of the dire harm being done to generations of people.  If a child cannot see or hear themselves as a respected and necessary part of the world, their place in the world is undermined.  Their power and their contributions are reduced to wage-slavery and poverty, and out of this system we get continued industrial and colonial behaviors like unrestrained resource extraction, unmitigated pollution, and corruption (http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/education_materials/modules/Environmental_Justice.pdf).  I find this untenable. I am inspired to take my studies, my campaign activism on social justice issues, and a lot of practical community building experience into a classroom on a regular basis. I am inspired to teach if for no other reason than to engage in giving, hearing, and using language that includes and promotes participation in social awareness and change.

Other resources that I use regularly that might be of interest to readers: